Let’s talk about service

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This is a commuter rail line: San Jose’s Altamont Commuter Express (ACE). It connects nine stations, one of them sort of close to a medium-sized employment center, one with a light rail connection to a suburban employment center, and seven which are basically no more than parking lots. There are six trains a day: three towards San Jose in the morning, three away from San Jose in the afternoon. The last train leaves at 5:35 p.m., and there’s no weekend service.

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This is also a commuter rail line: Tokyo’s Yamanote Line. It connects 29 stations. All of them are in walkable places, including several major employment centers; all but 2 have connections to other rail transit lines. Trains run every 2.5 minutes at rush hour, and nearly as frequently the rest of the day, from 4:30 am to 1:20 am, seven days a week.

Yes, these are both commuter rail lines. But “commuter rail” is a technology, and what matters in transit is not technology but level of service. There is no doubt that a train every 2.5 minutes is different than a train every half hour (or no train at all), that a station that’s within a 5 minute walk from thousands of jobs is different that a station in an open field, that a connection to a reliable transit service that runs every 5 minutes is different than a connection to an occasional shuttle bus that gets stuck in traffic.

These two lines are the same basic technology, but entirely different sorts of operations. And the numbers back that up: ACE carries 3,700 trips a day, while the Yamanote Line carries 3,500,000. It’s not technology that really matters, it’s service. And there’s a whole range of service: these are two ends of a spectrum with many other possibilities in between.

“We need commuter rail” is an incomplete statement. So is “we need commuter rail to Galveston.” “We need rail transit from Houston to Galveston that runs every 20 minutes all day every day, makes the trip in about an hour, and connects conveniently to UTMB, NASA, Downtown Houston, UH, the Texas Medical Center, and Uptown Houston” is the kind of statement you can design a line around.

The Houston-Galveston commuter rail study now underway (without the support of METRO, Harris County or the Gulf Coast Rail District) is considering four alternatives: no-build (AKA do nothing) and three technologies — express bus, BRT, and commuter rail. The commuter rail alternative is described as:

Commuter Rail Alternative provides service along the Galveston Houston & Henderson (GH&H) Railroad between Galveston and Houston. The GH&H is a freight rail line that runs parallel with SH 3 and IH 45 for almost the entire corridor. This Rail Alternative will be studied for its suitability to provide commuter rail service and efficiently address the corridor’s mobility problems. Current freight operations along the majority of this corridor are from six to eight trains per day. This alternative would include the exclusive use of this rail alignment for three hours in the AM peak and three hours in the PM peak, providing two-way commuter service from Downtown Houston to Galveston and the 11 cities along the corridor.

If that’s the only commuter rail option on offer, this isn’t a real alternatives analysis. We’re settling for a rather low level of service from the get-go, a level of service that will be useless to a lot of potential riders. What about an option that runs all day? How often should the trains run? These questions matter now because they factor into both cost and ridership: more frequent service means more riders, but it also requires more tracks. Now’s the time to analyze a few different options and compare, rather than beginning with a (rather limited) assumption of what “commuter rail” means.

What kind of service do you want? Do you want ACE? The Yamanote Line? Somewhere in between? Tell the study team at one of three public open houses:

Tuesday, January 12th, 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

La Marque Community Meeting Room

1109-B Bayou Road

La Marque, TX, 77568

Wednesday, January 13th, 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

University of Houston-Clear Lake,

Bayou Building, Atrium II

2700 Bay Area Blvd

Houston, TX 77058

Thursday, January 14th, 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

Cleveland-Ripley House Neighborhood Center

720 Fairmont Parkway

Pasadena, Texas 77504

And tell us in the forums.

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